There’s really no other way of describing the 2018 so far for Williams…it’s been a very rough year. The team have Mercedes power but cannot seem to find the pace to compete in the mid-field let alone the sharp end of the grid.
As Paul and I mentioned on our Canadian GP review podcast, I would never begrudge Williams F1 from seeking to run a tidy business, keep the lights on, make payroll and make financial moves like releasing Valtteri Bottas, signing Lance Stroll and his father’s resources or Sergey Sirotkin and his backer’s money. A team’s P&L has to be positive.
That approach has kept Williams on the grid and I commend them for that. I’m curious, however, if we are seeing the knock-on effect of what might happen in F1 when your main focus is remaining solvent as a business and your secondary focus is either an engineering division revenue stream or perhaps racing or all three at the same time.
I think the situation at Williams is a very difficult one to solve. Running a business around racing is incredibly hard work even when you’re winning but when you’re running at the back, it’s brutal. Claire Williams has denied that the team will write off the 2018 season in favor of focusing on the 2019 car.
“We have to fix this car,” a defiant Williams told Sky Sports F1. “We don’t give up, we can’t give up during a season as we’re an independent team. If we gave up our sponsors would probably give up and we can’t afford to do that.
“It is hard work, we have also got to look at next year’s car but this is going to be the bedrock of next year’s car. We have got to get this car right if we are going to make steps forward next season.”
“It hasn’t been the best year and it is really difficult,” said Williams. “It is difficult to keep morale up but the guys are doing a great job. It’s been the one thing I’ve been quite surprised by, how strong the morale is and everyone has dug in really deep and found the Williams fighting spirit.
“That’s all we can ask from them at the moment. We are putting them through the mill but everyone is working really hard and we have to get ourselves out of this.”
It’s easy for me to be a couch commando on this as I have no skin in the game but I have to say that Williams, Force India, and McLaren are all struggling under the 2014 regulation changes. Sauber was nearly on the brink and if it weren’t for a link-up with Ferrari, they may have faced a Manor-style departure from F1. Haas F1 also enjoys that link otherwise, it would not have entered into F1 without it.
F1’s issue is that no one can survive the sport without some sort of reliance on Mercedes, Renault or Ferrari and they all have a works team (Honda to some extent but that’s a separate deal as they are not a works team). In 2013, the manufacturers took this sport off the smooth asphalt, through the kitty litter and into the trees. The 2021 regulation changes are seeking a way for teams, like Williams, to compete but now that the manufacturers have had their way with the FIA and F1, they aren’t keen to reduce the complexity of their engines or aerodynamics or total resource spend on their programs.
Claire prides herself on being an independent team and she is…with a dependent engine supply. I am concerned that even the proposed 2021 regulation changes may not be enough to see Williams focusing on much other than survival and that’s not where fans want to see the historic team and I seriously doubt it is where Claire wants her team either.
McLaren’s fans have become downright vile on social media and that’s just the frustration manifest in their fan base who are demonstrating the bravery of being out of range. While some may argue that Claire’s issue is two rookie drivers, the same cannot be said of McLaren who have Fernando Alonso. I doubt that Lance Stroll or Sergey Sirotkin are the biggest issues for Williams right now.
Liberty Media bought a series with issues and they’ve immediately engaged in a lot of marketing and monetization strategies to increase their revenue. Some of that is born from necessity as broadcast deals expire and race contracts terminate. That’s understandable but if I were running F1, I would pour most of my resources into fixing the issues and making the very best product I could before spending millions on trying to convince people to like and invest in a product that is suffering under the weight of previous decisions.
I don’t blame Liberty Media for the current regulations and the kind of racing they deliver. The FIA and manufacturers were adamant that this is the right direction for F1. It clearly isn’t. The series didn’t gain millions of viewers due to its hybrid power units, increased reliance on aerodynamic downforce or the constructs to solve for uncompetitive racing in the form of DRS or HD tires. By all accounts I’ve read, the opposite is happening.
Jean Todt and Toto Wolff may be convinced that the future of their mobility and road car efforts is electric—never mind that Tesla is laying off approximately 4,500 people—but isn’t that why Formula E exists? Formula 1 is a different beast altogether and from my couch—not in Stevenage like Lewis—I see team bosses, the FIA, F1 and sponsors all entrenched in the current regulations and messages they send. You may or may not agree with them and that’s perfectly fine but what we are seeing is the results of decisions born from regulations crafted to deliver these concepts and ideas.
F1 has a lot of work to do or maybe it doesn’t. It all depends on what it wants to be. In 2013, I said that the direction seemed counterfeit and they dig and dig a hole until they fit. The product isn’t strong enough to lure in big sponsors and that’s where Claire could use the help because she’s losing Martini.
If the 2014 regulations were such a monumental direction and that’s what everyone wanted…where are the masses of big sponsors for the sport supporting this sustainable, more virtuous and equitable racing? Where are the sponsors, who were aghast over the objectification of women, when F1 banned grid girls? Why aren’t they clamoring to be involved in the sport now that the sport is not ogling women?
You may very well hashtag “#actually” every person that refers to F1’s history with internet-assembled proof that there were boring races in the past and you’d be right at some level but there is a difference. Back then, F1 wasn’t interested in developing regulations to be able to say what it wanted people to think it is.
It was about exploiting the tech, skills, resources and regulations to the furthest extreme, not conserving, nursing, lifting, coasting and dog-whistling messages. It was happy for manufacture involvement but wasn’t an incubator lab for electric road cars.
It was hi-tech, loud, brash, earth-shaking and blindingly fast as the car pushed the entire race and sponsors couldn’t wait to be a part of the spectacle because the product and car was OTT…and that, My friends, was a Williams and it won titles doing so. Now it is merely trying to survive and they’re not the only ones.
You may love the current regulations, HD tires, DRS and hybrid power units, that’s perfectly fine. You’re not alone but it will be interesting to see how Liberty Media can continue to lose viewers, find new ones, lure new sponsors, run a somewhat parallel technology message and arc with Formula E and still amass a prize fund large enough to keep Williams and others afloat or even better, competitive. If Liberty Media can do that, then the right folks bought F1.
Hat Tip: Autosport